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Monday, August 23, 2010

CD Review: Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier

Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier
2010 Universal Music
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

It's never easy being held to a standard when you're the greatest metal band of all time. New work comes at a premium, usually in the form of scrutiny. In the case of Iron Maiden, there's little more for them to accomplish at this point in their illustrious careers other than to enjoy the ride. Having all of its core principals intact for the fourth album in a row since Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the flock, it stands to reason Iron Maiden are in it for the pride.

The Final Frontier, like its predecessors A Matter of Life and Death, Dance of Death and Brave New World is not a grab you by the throat and rattle you from start-to-finish album like Powerslave, Piece of Mind or Number of the Beast. Those days are long gone and Iron Maiden, to their credit, haven't sought to replicate them--wholly. As of The Final Frontier, that ethos changes. Borrowed nuggets, chords and melody lines are found all over this album. Albeit, Iron Maiden does a fantastic job of altering their scripts and giving The Final Frontier the benefit of their roles as elder statesmen conveying their sageness by concocting a new art within their of-late marathon compositions.

In other words, you're best to treat The Final Frontier like a pet project and give it a number of spins before passing judgment. Like A Matter of Life of Death, this is an album destined for its share of critics as much as its regallers. That being said, the biggest compliment to The Final Frontier is its willingness to shoot from the hip at times and its purposeful strides towards reinvention. In all, this works to Iron Maiden's fortune, because they give their listeners a ton to digest on The Final Frontier.

Kudos for the exquisite tom march of "Satellite 15...The Final Frontier" opening the album. It's ingenius, it sets a thrumming precedent for Maiden and it builds high anticipation for the long journey of The Final Frontier. While the celestial theme of this album is inherent and insinuated, you will have to work your ears over at times to keep them floating in Andromeda.

For the nine-minute-plus "Isle of Avalon," Maiden does the work for you (even with its Arthurian lore) as the quieted melody threads and hi-hat furrows in the opening few minutes build a launchpad and then rockets upon beautiful prog solos from Maiden's triple attack of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers. It's not quite "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," but there's parallels to be noted between the two.

In its own right, the galloping huzzah of "El Dorado" can be construed as a space trucker as much as it can be a grounded charge into the land of gold with echoes of "The Trooper" and "Run to the Hills" giving it leverage. While fans initially criticized "El Dorado" when previewed as a single, it mingles in nicely following the head-bobbing smacks of "The Final Frontier" portion in the opening track. Frankly, "El Dorado" is one of the most exciting and identifiable songs Maiden has done in recent memory.

"Mother of Mercy" and "Coming Home" are slower, methodic and well-birthed from Piece of Mind, Number of the Beast and even Killers if you listen carefully. "Coming Home" lyrically sounds more in league with Maiden's Flight 666 DVD with Dickinson piloting his band's plane around the world, so don't expect everything on The Final Frontier to fall in line thematically. Instead, you'll be spending time picking out threads of "Still Life" and "Revelations" at this point in the album.

There's a reason for this ladle dipping on The Final Frontier, as Maiden traversed back to Compass Point Studios where many of their halcyon recordings were laid down. Reconnection is hardly the word here. The quick pick-up of "The Alchemist" feels reminiscent of "Back to the Village" from Powerslave as much as it does "The Prisoner" and "Gangland" from Number of the Beast. It's an ankle-provoking toe tapper which is the fastest Iron Maiden's been in some time.

It's also the mark where The Final Frontier begins its quest for the ultimate odyssey, which presents the album's most challenge. Nothing below 7 minutes each beginning with "Isle of Avalon" straight through, so make sure the coffee's hot on your first spin. What you're listening for the remainder of the swirling, crawling pace is some nifty soloing and a few signature adjustments. Example, the dirty classic rock bashing in the middle of "Starblind" or the progfest splicing the steadfast plod of "The Talisman" which rides on a time-true set of Maiden riffs, straight down to Steve Harris' golden bass plucks.

"The Man Who Would Be King" could've been a serious hiccup if Maiden didn't write in some outstanding tempo changes and gorgeous note scales on their extensive solo section. Also drifting a key shift on the song's bridges, it all saves a song which pitter-patters through its incredibly nervous verses. Harris loses his guys many times on "The Man Who Would Be King" until the artistry of the song unites them again.

Bruce Dickinson should be regarded as a natural wonder because his chops are still hanging tough almost thirty years in association with a band he's punished his throat for. Still able to peel off falsettos like nectarine skins, Dickinson's return home in 2000 is one of the chief reasons Iron Maiden still has a pulse. Even with these seventh-innning stretch tunes Maiden favors lately, you're mesmerized by Dickinson as a perpetual narrator.

The songs in the latter half of The Final Frontier are a virtual exercise and in some ways, they derail the excitment established by the first five tunes. It's not because the epic songs lack heaviness, it's because they lack constraint at times. Much as Iron Maiden pulls off a number of spiffy surprises, there's a say-when factor that needs to be adhered to despite your standing in the music world.

It doesn't mean the bobbing crunch in the second-third of "When the Wild Wind Blows" lacks conviction. Quite the opposite. It's a strident trudge to the quietus finishing The Final Frontier on a whisper. By this point, however, The Final Frontier could've glossed up and trimmed down the lead-ins to the more fascinating dimensions Iron Maiden adroitly incorporates. Then we would've had quite the monster album on our hands.

Never easy to flag the masters in their court, because The Final Frontier would be considered gifted genius by anyone else but Iron Maiden. Despite the repetition and the grossly-hijacked chord progressions of albums past, The Final Frontier is still an enjoyable ride. It's Maiden, for Christ's sake! "Rime of The Ancient Mariner" remains the greatest metal epic written by the greatest metal band in history, but its success was only duplicated within the years it was conceived, i.e. "Alexander the Great," "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son." It appears Iron Maiden wants to reclaim their stature as supreme artisans on a War and Peace level. Unfortunately, War and Peace isn't for everyone.

Rating: ****


Anonymous said...

Fantastic review. You are one of the only reviewers that get the first few tracks. And also get the later longer ones. Not enough is said about the prog sections however. They are seriously Rush like but hey don't mention that to a Maiden fan.

cjk_44 said...

now that i've had 2 weeks to absorb "TFF" i've come to the conclusion that i enjoy the longer tracks more than the shorter tracks. i seem to be in a distinct minority.

in fact, i re-listened to all the post-reunion albums and i've concluded that i really enjoy the progressive arc the band explored over the last decade. in fact, i now appreciate "BNW" and "AMOLAD" more than i originally did. sadly, i think "DOD" is not nearly as good as i originally thought it was.

however, it is most interesting that Iron Maiden is one of the few bands that i can truly compare my 14 year old self (geeking out to "Number of the Beast"!) to my 42 year old self (fully appreciating "TFF").

Architrion said...

cjk_44. I agree absolutely about the progressive arc. I like complexity it brought to Maiden sound. It keeps you anxious about next turn in the song, because there is no obvious and simple guideline.

One thing I've noticed. TFF makes all three previous albums to sound a bit old, a bit ancient. And that can only be a good thing

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thank you all for your comments. I certainly don't want to criticize Maiden for writing constant epics since I was really into the Matter of Life and Death epics and defended them at the time.

I certainly would agree with all of you that Maiden is decidedly in a prog phase (which is better than a blue period many artists go through) and I'm really excited by the new directions TFF has taken. I do, however, appreciate the get-in-and-get-out songs for making their statements then moving forward.

The prog songs are a lot to digest and that's always good, so I gave the caveat everyone should spin this album numerous times before making a full judgment. I had to do the same, despite having an initial reaction. I know a lot of people are going to be annoyed there's so much prog and length to Maiden's work lately. I would say if they can avoid recycling a lot of the same familiar chords, bars and sequences which are the only weaknesses to the long songs, then their revision can be embraced.

Anonymous said...

This is as good a review too.

Anonymous said...

The Cd is good but, the mix is very bad, It's very muddy at best. I own a Record label and I would think a band as great as Maiden would do it right way and not put out a CD that sounds this bad production wise.

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